Taliban demands prisoner release to rejoin Afghan peace talks

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s Taliban demanded the release of political prisoners as one of the conditions that they said on Sunday would need to be met before they consider rejoining peace talks aimed at ending the 15-year war.Taliban forces have stepped up their campaign in the last year to topple the Kabul government, which has struggled since most foreign troops left at the end of 2014. The Islamist insurgents are demanding the release of an unnamed list of prisoners, to be removed from a U.N. blacklist freezing their assets and imposing a travel ban on its leaders, and to have a political office formally recognized. These are “among the preliminary steps needed for peace,” the Taliban said in a statement. “Without them, progress towards peace is not feasible.”

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, said the Taliban have been fairly consistent in their demands and he is skeptical the latest push would yield any results.

“The demand for a release of what they call political prisoners had been on the table in earlier talks, too,” he said. The latest demands are not a sign that the “Taliban are willing to join talks anytime soon”. The demands came a day after participants from the Taliban and former Afghan officials met in Qatar at a conference to resolve the war organized by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, a Nobel peace prize-winning crisis group.The rare talks are a step towards a peace process that has proved elusive during a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of Afghans since the Taliban were driven from power by a 2001 U.S.-led military operation.Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States met last week to lay the ground for a negotiated end to the war and called for the Taliban to rejoin the peace process. The first formal peace talks with the Taliban since the start of the war collapsed last year after it was announced its founder, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who sanctioned the talks, had been dead for two years, throwing the group into disarray.Despite efforts to restart talks, since the start of the year the Taliban have ramped up their campaign of violence across Afghanistan, with suicide attacks and territorial gains in Helmand province.

Reporting By Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Digby Lidstone